Catalogue entry

T03055 THE RISE OF FASCISM 1975–9

Inscribed ‘Kitaj’ b.r.
Pastel, charcoal and oil on paper, 33 1/2 × 62 5/16 (80.5 × 158.4)
Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Exh: R. B. Kitaj: Pastels and Drawings, Marlborough Fine Art, October–November 1980 (27, repr., and incorrectly dated 1979–80)
Lit: Timothy Hyman, ‘Kitaj: A Prodigal, Returning’, Artscribe, No.25, October 1980, pp.38–9 (repr., and incorrectly dated 1979–80); Sara Selwood in ‘Commentary’, Times Literary Supplement, 24 October 1980, p.1200; Tate Gallery 1978–80, p.54 repr. in colour

R. B. Kitaj's first pastels began to appear in 1974 and since 1978 he has worked almost exclusively in that medium, often, as with ‘The Rise of Fascism’, on a large scale. Apart from the cat in the centre foreground and some other minor areas painted in oil, this work is entirely executed in Roché handmade pastels, with a small amount of charcoal, on Barcham Green ‘Porridge’ paper. In conversation with the compiler, the artist spoke of his admiration for Degas (and, to a lesser extent, Redon) and of his determination to master the technique of pastel, though there are affinities between Kitaj's use of the medium here and his own characteristic manner of working with thin, dry oil paint on canvas to achieve a grainy surface texture.

Concerning the iconography and genesis of T03055, Kitaj wrote:

'The central grotesque bather is the fascist. The bather at the left is the beautiful victim. The righthand bather is the ordinary European watching it all happen. A bomber appears in the upper left corner which will cross the English Channel and bring an end to it all one day.

'The three figures were originally drawn on separate sheets of paper from women who posed for me in New York and London. Later, between 1975 and 1979, when I took it into my head to make a composition, I asked a few other women to assume the poses that would represent the bathers in fascist Europe. After the drawings were glued together, the images began to change many times.

‘Much of the drawing was ultimately invented but the pose of the righthand figure is based on a picture by the Cordoban painter Romero de Torres (d. 1930).’

The method of fusing together drawings done on separate pieces of paper to produce a single image, which can be seen in several other pastels of this period, (e.g.nos.2,3,4,40 and 41 in the 1980 Marlborough exhibition catalogue, op.cit.), contributes to the ambiguous relationship, both physical and psychological, between the three figures in T03055. While one effect of this cutting and joining is to emphasise the fragmentary nature of the composition, Kitaj also makes use of the edges of the paper to reinforce contour and volume. When questioned about the extreme anatomical foreshortening in the torso of the left-hand bather the artist replied that it was in fact possible and that a source existed for it in a pornographic magazine. ‘The often unlikely joining’, Kitaj added, ‘of limbs and postures in Cézanne's Bather compositions are also entrenched in one's memory ... but the pose was taken from the life.’

Despite the hieratic arrangement of figures in T03055, the artist denied any obvious symbolic content beyond the simple allegory described above. Asked whether the presence of a black cat in the context of female nudes was deliberately intended to evoke traditional associations of the prostitute or courtesan, Kitaj thought that it suggested instead only a general sense of mystery and evil. He agreed that the picture as a whole could be read as an ironic inversion of the classical bathers subject and said that the brutal elements in its imagery - the fascist with her pistol and the Fortress bomber - were meant to convey an atmosphere of menace and unease, ‘unlike the sublime apparatus of those great familiar bathers of 80 years ago in French painting.’

The above entry is based on a conversation with the artist (11 April 1980) and a letter from him (postmarked 21 April 1980). It has been edited and approved by him.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981